10. Fire and Ashes
It was time to put on my big-girl pants. Yes, I had cracked emotionally, and yes I was in over my head, but heck, I was still standing. Granted my knees were bruised from getting knocked down, but I would fight to the bitter end, if not for us, then for Betty.
Back in the ring we went (aka “the barn”). We knew what we envisioned for Brick n Barn, but we didn’t know if it aligned with what the public wanted. During those first few shows, I worked the floor while Benjamin chatted outside with customers about what it would take to turn them loyal.
Responses were all over the place, from “decent toilets” and “customer service” to “new inventory,” and “hot coffee.”
In between repairs and our day jobs, Benjamin I went shopping, filling our hatchback Subaru with a new genre of antiques — up-cycled, distressed, rustic, industrial, and repurposed pieces with bright pops of color.
Since we didn’t entirely know what our audience wanted, we’d give them a little bit of everything. It seemed like a solid direction, until one wise couple pulled Benjamin aside during the show.
“Stop asking what people want,” they told him, “and just build what you envision. If your heart is in it, people will follow.”
That was it. That was the winning formula that would save us from antique landmines, ready to trigger at every teacup and doily. We would go rogue, turning our backs on aversion, protest, gossip, complaints, and demands, and frankly just do what made sense to us.
Up until that point, that mindset had worked just fine in the history of Benjamin and Marlise. We were creative mutts — a Euro-American hybrid that poured our souls into passion projects. In our eight years of marriage, we had joined forces on three home renovations, embarked on 50 travel assignments, and checked dozens of dreams off our bucket list.
Benjamin encouraged me to author — and publish — multiple books, and I was his muse on two solo albums and more recently, supported his desire to explore the world by motorbike.
Our own breed of nebulous humanity, we swim upstream to break social molds in an exodus from cubicles, TV dinners, Ikea, and “the man.” We stay up late, thrive on risk, and race ourselves to the invisible finish line.
Our pace and habits stress those around us, many of whom encourage us to slow down for the sake of the “here and now”. But it’s the “what’s next?” that brings us solace, as we cling to the tattered coat tails of tomorrow rather than sleep on the fine fabrics of today.
Despite our vast forest of rainbows and butterflies, we are not immune to pain. We have walked through dark valleys of matchless loss, only to come out stronger on the brim of hope.
We call ourselves sustainers vs survivors, since the latter eludes to a permanent escape from suffering and despair. What we know too well are the ebbs and flow of life, and that we all suffer in unpredictable patterns. What matters however, is how we react to that suffering, and how we rise up from the ashes.
During those first few months at Brick n Barn, we were buried in ashes, unable to escape the heap of problems on our shoulders. We were so consumed with the negative, that we hardly had time to notice the progress we had made.
Then, one morning, Benjamin called me outside to listen to the birds. He was cutting wood for our new Brick n Barn signs, while I was busy scrubbing mold off the shower tiles and vacuuming up dead pinchers and beetles.
“Listen,” he said, pointing at the trees. The birds were chirping unusually loudly, as if trying to introduce us to the beauty of our own property. And that’s when I saw them, two baby birds wiggling in the dirt. Eyes closed and void of feathers, both had either fallen or been pushed from their nest.
“Oh Love,” I begged, “We have to save them!”
Using a bed of leaves, he picked them up and put them back into the nest, that was shaded inside one of our vintage birdhouses. Benjamin promised to monitor them from a distance, and encouraged me to not give it another thought. He knew how death of the innocent consumed me, especially when it came to children and animals.
So, I sat across the property on a boulder with a pair of binoculars, praying the mother bird would nurture her young. The moment I saw her fly back into the nest, my heart was at rest. For some reason, that image of survival gave me hope for our story.
And so we took the hits in stride. Our electric and water bills were astronomical, to the point Benjamin asked if we should just stop watering the property altogether and let everything die.
It must have been his word choice that got me, because I immediately turned to him in shock and snapped, “No! Nothing here can die. We are here to bring back new life.”
My dramatic response to Benjamin’s concern for our water bill was nothing out of the ordinary. I was a hormonal mess, crying one minute, yelling the next, and invigorated by the challenge somewhere in between.
Fortunately I was in a good place the following day when the fire department unexpectedly showed up on our property. One-full sized fire truck and a service vehicle marked “Inspector” pulled up to our gate unannounced. Naturally I opened if for them to enter, and asked how I could be of service.
Apparently, someone had reported Brick n Barn for code violation, assuming we were running a business without going through the appropriate channels. They asked if they could set up a time to inspect the property and discuss the steps to operate such a monthly event. With great pleasure, I invited the firemen to join me in a full property tour, not just of the land, but of the barn, the house, and the garage.
Needless to say they were impressed, as much with the history and architecture, as they were with the work we had accomplished in less than two months. Fire brush had been cleared, wiring had been repaired, sprinklers had been installed, the attic had been cleaned, and over 20 tons of garbage and green waste had been dumped.
They were pretty much speechless, and even more so when I offered to share our business license, tax ID number, and seller’s permits. By the end of the tour, the Fire Chief offered Brick n Barn an Event Permit, along with an open invitation to assist with traffic during larger events. He suggested we buy “Nest” smoke detectors that notify of smoke through our smart phones. So we bought three.
The fire trucks left the property and I headed straight to the kitchen to bake. Within two hours, I was at the fire station, handing over warm brownies and a thank you card. The next week I brought them lemon bars, and the week after that were chocolate chip cookies. We encouraged them to send us suggested dates for an appreciation breakfast, so we could thank them for their service.
Benjamin, who was at work during this episode, was thoroughly impressed by how I handled the situation. The whole ordeal also saddened us to realize that someone “out there” was not on our side. My guard went up, now unsure of who to trust.
Early the following morning, a truck was inside our property, pulling away from the barn — our barn! Peering out the window, I screamed (again) at Benjamin.
“Someone is stealing our furniture!” Sprinting down the stairs in my pajamas, I threw open the door, and ran for the truck. Without thinking, I jumped on the hood of the truck, screaming at a man I had never before met or seen. In hindsight it was a stupid move, but I had this ongoing eerie feeling things just weren’t right.
“Who are you,” I screamed through the windshield, “and how did you get onto our property?”
Stepping out of the rusty truck, a dark-haired man covered in tattoos held up his hands. “I’m Jerry,” he said in defense. “ Your vendor asked me to pick up some of her furniture. Trust me, you can call her.”
I knew he was probably right. A vendor had recently taken over a third of the barn space with a friend. Since we didn’t have the time or money to fill the spot on our own, so it was a win-win for both parties.
Since they had so much inventory, they hired men and youth at random to help rotate furniture. The only problem was that we never knew when they would show up, or, who some of those people were. It wasn’t uncommon for our locked gate to creak open at 7 am, waking the dogs, and setting our days in motion earlier than planned.
But this was the season we were in, learning to let go and trust. That same night Benjamin and I decided to have a date night. In nearly seven weeks, we had not once left our property unoccupied. This would be our first time to do so.
When we drove away, a few vendors were in the barn, setting up their section for the next show. We had three rules that we told our team: “Water, lights, locks.” It was a simple formula to check all three, but somehow, one was always overlooked. That night was no exception.
At 10:30 pm, we came home, I stepped out the car to unlock the gate, and found my shoes completely submerged in water. Sloshing over to the source, I found that someone had left the hose on full blast, thus flooding the entire hillside from the barn, down the driveway, and to the front gate.
Eventually I learned that their team had spent the day repairing and painting furniture in the barn. In the midst of rinsing out their paintbrushes, someone had failed to turn the water off.
“Just let it go,” Benjamin told me. “It’s not worth fighting over.”
Our bills were climbing by the day, and so was our stress level. Benjamin and I were a team that rarely outsourced projects or leaned on anyone outside the family. Up until that point, we had valued and needed our privacy and personal space. The fact that we now had people in and around our home — all hours of every day — required a great deal of patience and adjustment.
I sat down with Benjamin, asking how we could possibly earn more money to cover some of these growing unforeseen expenses.
“Well, it’s not ideal,” he said, “and it will inevitably fall on your shoulders, but how about we add a third day to the antique shows?”
Next story on "Channeling Betty" coming soon.